Airmen with a capital “A

  • Published
  • By Col. Micheal J. Underkofler
  • 22nd Air Force
Just a few years ago, the U.S. Air Force put together a monumental effort to celebrate our diamond anniversary. Sixty years of technological superiority, aerial heroism and soaring accomplishments were marked by worldwide celebrations and national pride. Throughout all of the editorials and advertisements, and the tremendous work applied by those who care so dearly for our history and sacrifice, there was an implied branding that might have been emphasized just a little more. We had become Airmen with a capital "A." The reverie for that 60th anniversary was justifiably heightened as we also finally dedicated a memorial to our separate service. Still, becoming Airmen is important. And it seems to be worth at least a few more printed lines and some reflection.

Sept. 18, 1947, was a blue-letter day. And even though it was probably somewhat difficult for our Army leadership they couldn‟t hold us back. They recognized different skills and training were required to operate in the battle space of the air and grew to support the establishment of the Air Force.

Leading the way in carving out the manpower from the Army to support the new service was the Air Corps Deputy Chief of Staff, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. In a few short weeks, he along with the Army Deputy reached agreement on hundreds of issues. It was a model of cooperation.

General Vandenberg was a fast-burner. He could have been a Hollywood star. Although he was known to be happily married, the blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe named Vandenberg, along with Joe DiMaggio and Albert Einstein, as one of the three men she‟d like to be stranded with on a desert island. Vandenberg had style too. He took a major role in designing a new uniform for the Air Force.

President Harry S. Truman liked the uniforms and told Vandenberg to win over Congress. To do so, Vandenberg and a colonel went to the hill in the suggested uniforms. Instead of Vandenberg making the pitch before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the colonel did. This was calculated as Vandenberg secretly dressed as a sergeant and kept quiet. When finished speaking, the Colonel introduced the "Sergeant." Once the congressmen realized the ruse, they roared with approval and the Air Force got approval for a distinctly different uniform.

As the second Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Vandenberg labored on weightier issues too. Doctrine, force strength, basing - every day a laundry list of tasks to be accomplished to make us a stronger service. This took a heavy toll on him, but he kept pushing forward. General Vandenberg also decided we needed an air-centric way to address our enlisted personnel. No longer would E-1 through E-5 be called private, private first class, corporal, sergeant, and sergeant first class, respectively.

On February 20, 1950, General Vandenberg directed that all Air Force enlisted personnel be called airmen (lower case) with the first five grades shortly thereafter being addressed as basic airman, airman, airman third class, airman second class, and airman first class. He wrote "the habitual use of the term „airmen‟ should aid in distinguishing the enlisted personnel of the Air Force from those of the other services and in identifying them more closely with their chosen service in the structure for National Defense."

Over the years there have been a few changes to the enlisted rank structure, most notably the addition of the E-8 and E-9 grades through the Military Pact Act of 1958. Rank abbreviations, salutations, and chevron designs have changed. Never, however, have we adopted the three-digit rank structure used by the Army in either the enlisted or officer corps. For example, our Master Sgt. rank has always been abbreviated with four letters: M-S-G-T. The spacing and capitalization may have changed, but never did we lose our distinctiveness from the other services.

If alive, I believe General Vandenberg would have been proud when, in 2004, our Chief of Staff, General John Jumper, made airman and the plural, airmen, proper nouns requiring capitalization. The Navy, Army and Marines may have aviators they call airmen, but we have an entire force of Airmen.

So while a month belated, wish your Airmen a happy anniversary. Honor General Vandenberg and those early Airmen who worked so incredibly hard to make us into the most respected Air Force in the world. Honor your Airmen today and in the future by taking the time to get it right. Write and type their rank correctly, and address them with the respect they have unquestionably earned. Sometimes we catch ourselves complaining about changes and that is certainly our nature. We like for things to remain familiar when it comes to home, country, family and service. This is one way to preserve something that is so valuable and what makes us different from so many other organizations. We are Airmen with a capital "A."